Bill English’s weasel words on weather, climate and drought

by Gareth on March 14, 2013

Occasionally — but only occasionally — the political pantomime that is parliamentary question time throws up something interesting. Yesterday, NZ’s deputy prime minister Bill English managed to dig himself into a drought-ridden hole, only to emerge looking like a climate denier. Green Party co-leader Russel Norman tried to get English to expand on his earlier comments that the government would not be able to help farmers hit by increased incidence of droughts, which led to this astonishing little exchange [Hansard transcript here]:

Dr Russel Norman: Does he agree with the Government’s own research body the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) when it states: “Droughts are projected to become more frequent and more intense under climate change.”?

Hon Bill English: I would not want to question the scientific effort that has gone into that, although there is always uncertainty about these predictions. I recall similar predictions made by similar scientific bodies in Australia just 4 or 5 years ago and it has not stopped raining since.

Astonishing stuff. English gets the uncertainty issue completely wrong1, and then manages to insult Australians who have been suffering through their hottest summer ever. Here’s a little chart from the Aussie Climate Commission that he might find helpful.

The Angry Summer Map480

This is what NIWA has to say (pdf):

The most likely scenario sees farmers in most North Island regions, as well as those in eastern regions of the South Island — especially Canterbury and eastern Southland – spending 5-10 per cent more of the year in drought by the middle of this century. This means that if you spend an average of 10 per cent of your time in drought at the moment, by 2040, you might expect to spend as much as 20 per cent — although this figure will naturally vary from year to year.

Throughout the exchange with Norman, the deputy PM seemed extremely loath to use the words “climate change”, and instead made extensive references to cycles and weather patterns. In a later supplementary question, Norman asked him if he accepted that “human-induced climate change is real?”

Hon Bill English: It may well be, but I am not sure what that has got to do with this particular question.

Weasel words, at best. English wants to ignore the clear advice the government is receiving from the Crown Research Institute tasked with studying the issue, and can’t bring himself to directly accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change. You’d think it would be a simple matter for a senior politician to take reality at face value and act accordingly, but that seems be something that English and his cabinet colleagues find difficult in lots of areas…

  1. The best evidence (NIWA summary pdf here) we have indicates that the frequency of droughts is going to increase — the uncertainty is by how much and when. []

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

noelfuller March 14, 2013 at 6:16 pm

Quite plainly Bill English spoke his own mind the other day but has since been given his orders. So along with sustainability and environmental , climate change is a forbidden word and doubt a government policy. His own words and the words of the fossil fuels lobby must be preserved together as clear evidence of the corruption of our government. It is hard for me to think of strong enough terms to express my disgust with this miasma of the mind.

Macro March 15, 2013 at 11:46 am
Thomas March 14, 2013 at 7:03 pm

Well, in a democracy we ultimately get the government that we voted for (collectively). This sort of “weaseling about” is the only response they can somehow reconcile with their political home turf. Like the frog inside the slowly heating pot on the fire, it will take significant events to overcome the inertia of those in power…. sadly just like the frog analogy, it may be too late by then.

Dave Frame March 15, 2013 at 3:21 pm

Thomas wrote:”This sort of “weaseling about” is the only response they can somehow reconcile with their political home turf.”

This is exactly the sort of inference I think is wrong and unconstructive. The fact is you could argue for a range of policies, based on mainstream readings of the science. A solid knowledge of climate science does not make you join any particular political party. Other things (values) make you do that.

Thomas March 16, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Well, I find this talk around the bush (as by English) wrong and unconstructive. Perhaps, solid knowledge of climate science does not make persons join a particular party, but if the political party line requires you to deny your solid knowledge of climate science then one would hope you would question if it is worth living with the cognitive dissonance denial requires or if it might be healthier to join a political group that acknowledges climate science and advocates to act and devise policy in agreement with such knowledge…. It would seem that the political home of National/Act suits the stance of science denial best and unsurprisingly seems to attract persons who fall into that category.

bill March 16, 2013 at 5:01 pm

And the values of his party make him ‘weasel about’. Because the party’s values are what motivates it and its policies.

The ‘range of policies’ they are prepared to contemplate is consequently not based on the realities identified by NIWA. We have the same problem in this country with an allegedly ‘conservative’ party, more than half of whose members think they are smarter than the BoM and CSIRO.

Your reaction is cockeyed and based on your reading what you choose to into Thomas’s statement. Much like your apparently seeing imaginary ‘Marxists’ everywhere. Unhelpful.

Mike Palin March 18, 2013 at 8:43 pm

“A solid knowledge of climate science does not make you join any particular political party.”

Yes, but belonging to some political parties apparently can transform one into nothing more than a well-trained monkey. All the more reason to avoid the politcans and go the heart of the matter – people and price of alternative energy.

Thomas March 14, 2013 at 10:42 pm

Perhaps Bill the Weaseler should read the Marcott paper.
This is on of their graphs from excerpts of the paper in Slate.

Bob Bingham March 15, 2013 at 2:57 pm

Does this mean that if you believe in the science of climate change then you have to vote labour?
This puts me in a very difficult position. Look at my web site.
http://www.climateoutcome.kiwi.nz/

viv k March 15, 2013 at 8:01 pm

How on earth could anyone with a solid knowledge of climate science support a political party (National) that advocates tripling our petroleum exports by encouraging off-shore drilling? Only people who value short term greed above all else could support that strategy. Or maybe you are saying it is possible to understand climate science but not give a shit about the consequences? Anyone who does understand climate change and still votes National or Act must have a serious disconnect happening in their brain.

Bob Bingham March 16, 2013 at 9:03 am

Both political parties think we need the money. I don’t recall Labour closing a coal mine for instance. The only tactic is for all the people to make it clear that we have a big problem and make it a grass roots change.
My contribution is to have a web site http://www.climateoutcome.kiwi.nz/ to show where we are heading and I also do talks to schools and social groups to spread the knowledge and the dangers.
My intention is to inform the local politicians (National) of the dangers so that they are aware of the problems coming soon.

noelfuller March 16, 2013 at 3:43 pm

I’ve looked through your site Bob. Very useful.

viv k March 16, 2013 at 12:37 pm

Good on you Bob for getting out there and talking to people about climate change. BTW there are more than 2 political parties, the Greens are the most up with the play on this serious issue. But trying to get ‘ordinary people’ to understand what the problem is ( and the urgency of it) will be the only way we can get any politicians to do something effective.

eltoro March 17, 2013 at 11:16 pm

Watching Bill English on Q&A this morning was like watching a `answer the questions but don`t say YES` show. English did utter the dreaded words “Climate Change” but only in reference to the subject and to his credit hit for six (despite considerable persistence from Corin Dan) any suggestion that he understood the magnitude of the problem keeping his comments totally focused on adaptation to a one in whatever event.
Absolutely no suggestion whatsoever of mitigation measures of any sort.
Then again with the revelations of the Solid Energy debacle mitigation by default may prevail.
A criminal waste of tax payer funds and total lack of accountability to state the obvious and a lament what a fraction on that wasted fortune could have done for renewable energy R & D.
With leadership like this why worry, just K Y A goodbye.

CTG March 18, 2013 at 7:03 am

The thing that annoys me with Solid Energy is that people saying that is was an unpredictable “perfect storm” that only hindsight could reveal. Seriously? The only way crashing coal prices could not be foreseen is if you had blinded yourself to the reality of global warming and were convinced that we could merrily carry on burning fossil fuels forever. So the government is admitting right there that they don’t believe what the scientists are telling them.

Anthony Clark March 19, 2013 at 11:03 pm

New Zealand is trapped in what a good colleague calls the “hydro-illogical cycle”. Unfortunately the culture of denial that has built up around climate change spills over into the primary sectors awareness of the risks posed by natural variability. The country is woefully under prepared because most technology and practices were developed during a wetter decade or two (1980-2000 approx), and good risk analysis, which provides farmers with a lens into the full range of possibilities, is just rejected as ‘climate change waffle’. The sad thing is that the NIWA projections you quote are very conservative and went to great lengths to include uncertainty. They also only deal with the climate change component. In reality any individual event is going to be a mix of both, so you get severe events that are well outside the natural window. Like the one being experienced now. And so, despite uncertainty from 20 climate models tracking anthropogenic change, nested in the background variability of that wetter 20 year period, NIWA’s analysis still detected a strong climate change signal. This is quite form advice that over the coming decades additional risk needs to be factored in on top of the variability that NZ farmers find hard enough to manage. Unfortunately Mr English’s comments merely reflect prejudices in the community. They also show he hasn’t read any of the advice that has been given to him on the subject, a sad inditement form someone in his position. Probably more sadly, there are deeply entrenched denialist prejudices in the professional community in NZ that serve its primary sectors. These propagate the world view that skews the risk awareness of many farm managers in the country. So the hydro illogical cycle continues!

Bob Bingham March 20, 2013 at 9:33 am

To take a political line that denies a scientific fact is inexcusable and I worry that NZ is copying American practices in many areas. The USA is not a good role model. NZ is more democratic and less corrupt and we have a proud history of emancipation that the USA could not understand.
When I give talks on climate change I try to take the science and convert it into a simple understandable format that makes easy to understand. Even then, after explaining everything simply and clearly, someone will say ‘but I don’t think humans are causing the warming’.
The chances that a politician or a businessman getting briefing that is clear and understandable is very small.
The whole population has to believe in it so that the whole population is onboard and the only way to get votes is to take a sensible position on it.

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